Justia Legal Ethics Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Professional Malpractice & Ethics
by
The Supreme Court granted the petition brought by the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission claiming that Judge Carroll violated several rules of the Arkansas Code of Judicial Conduct, including breaching his duty to the public and undermining the fair and impartial administration of justice, holding that disciplinary action was required.In its petition, the Commission agreed to recommend a suspension without pay for ninety days, with thirty days held in abeyance for one year, and certain remedial measures for Judge Carroll's improprieties. The Supreme Court granted the Commission's expedited petition and modified the recommendation sanction by suspending Judge Carroll without pay for eighteen months, with six of those months held in abeyance. The Court further ordered Judge Carroll to perform an assessment and complete a plan with the Judges and Lawyers Assistance Program, holding that, given the seriousness of the conduct at issue, the length of the recommended suspension was insufficient. View "Ark. Judicial Discipline & Disability Comm'n v. Carroll" on Justia Law

by
Hewittel was convicted of armed robbery and related offenses based solely on the testimony of the victim. Three witnesses—one of them having little relationship with anyone in the case—were prepared to testify in support of Hewittel’s alibi that he was at home, almost a half-hour from the crime scene when the crime occurred. Hewittel’s attorney failed to call any of those witnesses at trial, not because of any strategic judgment but because Hewittel’s counsel thought the crime occurred between noon and 12:30 p.m. when Hewittel was at home alone. The victim twice testified (in counsel’s presence) that the crime occurred at 1:00 or 1:30 p.m.—by which time all three witnesses were present at Hewittel’s home. Counsel also believed that evidence of Hewittel’s prior convictions would have unavoidably come in at trial. In reality, that evidence almost certainly would have been excluded, if Hewittel’s counsel asked. Throughout the trial, Hewittel’s counsel repeatedly reminded the jury that his client had been convicted of armed robbery five times before.The trial judge twice ordered a new trial. The Michigan Court of Appeals reversed, based in part on the same mistake regarding the time of the offense. The federal district court granted a Hewittel writ of habeas corpus. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, calling the trial “an extreme malfunction in the criminal justice system.” View "Hewitt-El v. Burgess" on Justia Law

by
Kimberlyn Seals and her counsels of record, Felecia Perkins, Jessica Ayers, and Derek D. Hopson, Sr., appealed a chancery court's: (1) Contempt Order entered on April 8, 2020; (2) the Temporary Order entered on April 28, 2020; (3) the Jurisdictional Final Judgment entered on June 16, 2020; (4) the Final Judgment on Motion for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law entered on June 18, 2020; and (5) the Amended Final Judgment entered on June 18, 2020. Seals argued the chancellor lacked jurisdiction and erroneously found them to be in contempt of court. These orders arose out of a paternity suit filed by the father of Seals' child, born 2017. A hearing was set for April 7, 2020, but Seals sought a continuance. The motion was deemed untimely, and that the court expected Seals and her counsel to appear at the April 7 hearing. When Seals and her counsel failed to appear, the court entered the contempt orders at issue before the Mississippi Supreme Court. The Supreme Court: (1) affirmed the chancellor’s finding that Perkins and Ayers were in direct criminal contempt for their failure to appear at a scheduled April 7 hearing; (2) vacated the $3,000 sanction because it exceeded the penalties prescribed by statute; (3) affirmed the award of attorneys’ fees to opposing counsel; (4) found the chancellor erred in finding Hopson to be in direct criminal contempt for failing to appear - "Constructive criminal contempt charges require procedural safeguards of notice and a hearing;" and (5) found the chancellor erroneously found the attorneys to be in direct criminal contempt for violation of the September 2019 Temporary Order. "If proved, such acts are civil contempt." The matter was remanded for a determination of whether an indirect civil contempt proceeding should be commenced. View "Seals, et al. v. Stanton" on Justia Law

by
The Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission ("the JIC") filed a complaint against Judge John Randall "Randy" Jinks, the Probate Judge for Talladega County, Alabama, alleging that he had violated the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics by frequently exhibiting an inappropriate demeanor, by inappropriately using a work-assigned computer and a work-assigned cellular telephone, and by abusing the prestige of the Office of Probate Judge. The Alabama Court of the Judiciary, ("the COJ") found that the evidence supported some of the charges alleged and removed Judge Jinks from office. Judge Jinks appealed. After reviewing the record in this case, the Mississippi Supreme Court concluded that the judgment of the COJ was supported by clear and convincing evidence. Accordingly, the judgment of the COJ was affirmed. View "Jinks v. Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission" on Justia Law

by
Memphis attorney Skouteris practiced plaintiff-side, personal injury law. He routinely settled cases without permission, forged client signatures on settlement checks, and deposited those checks into his own account. Skouteris was arrested on state charges, was disbarred, and was indicted in federal court for bank fraud. At Skouteris’s federal trial, lay testimony suggested that Skouteris was not acting under any sort of diminished cognitive capacity. Two psychologists examined Skouteris. The defense expert maintained that Skouteris suffered from a “major depressive disorder,” “alcohol use disorder,” and “seizure disorder,” which began during Skouteris’s college football career, which, taken together, would have “significantly limited” Skouteris’s “ability to organize his mental efforts.” The government’s expert agreed that Skouteris suffered from depression and alcohol use disorder but concluded that Skouteris was “capable of having the mental ability to form and carry out complex thoughts, schemes, and plans.” Skouteris’s attorney unsuccessfully sought a jury instruction that evidence of “diminished mental capacity” could provide “reasonable doubt that” Skouteris had the “requisite culpable state of mind.”Convicted, Skouteris had a sentencing range of 46-57 months, with enhancements for “losses,” abusing a position of trust or using a special skill, and committing an offense that resulted in “substantial financial hardship” to at least one victim. The district court varied downward for a sentence of 30 months plus restitution of $147,406. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, rejecting challenges to the sufficiency of the evidence, the jury instructions, and the sentence. View "United States v. Skouteris" on Justia Law

by
Crane filed a complaint for retaliatory discharge, alleging that his employment with Midwest was terminated after he reported numerous health and safety violations to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Crane was awarded $160,000 in compensatory damages and $625,000 in punitive damages. The appellate court affirmed. After losing the underlying action and paying damages to its former employee, Midwest filed a legal malpractice complaint against its attorneys and the Sandberg law firm, alleging that the attorneys failed to list all witnesses intended to be called at trial in compliance with Illinois Supreme Court Rule 213(f), resulting in six defense witnesses being barred from testifying, and several other errors.The circuit court denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss but certified a question for immediate appeal: Does Illinois’ public policy on punitive damages and/or the statutory prohibition on punitive damages [in legal malpractice actions, 735 ILCS 5/2-1115] bar recovery of incurred punitive damages in a legal malpractice case where the client alleges that, but for the attorney's negligence in the underlying case, the jury in the underlying case would have returned a verdict awarding either no punitive damages or punitive damages in a lesser sum?” The appellate court and Illinois Supreme Court answered the question in the negative and affirmed the judgment. View "Midwest Sanitary Service, Inc. v. Sandberg, Phoenix & Von Gontard, P.C." on Justia Law

by
In 2002, Douglas Coe, Jacqueline Coe, and GFLIRB, LLC (collectively the “Coes”) were involved in the sale of a company in which they held a substantial interest. Their accountants, BDO Seidman, LLP (“BDO”), advised them of a proposed tax strategy in which the Coes could invest in distressed debt from a foreign company in order to offset their tax obligations. In connection with the proposed tax strategy, BDO advised the Coes to obtain a legal opinion from an independent law firm, Proskauer Rose LLP (“Proskauer”). The Coes followed BDO’s advice, obtained a legal opinion from Proskauer, and claimed losses on their tax returns as a result. But in 2005, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) initiated an audit, which ultimately led to a settlement in 2012. After settling with the IRS, the Coes filed suit against Proskauer in December 2015, asserting legal malpractice, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, negligent misrepresentation, and other claims. After limited discovery on whether the statute of limitation barred the Coes’ claims, the trial court concluded that it did and granted summary judgment in favor of Proskauer, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Georgia Supreme Court concluded the Court of Appeals erred in determining that the Coes failed, as a matter of law, to exercise reasonable diligence to discover Proskauer’s allegedly fraudulent acts. Judgment was reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for further proceedings. View "Coe, et al. v. Proskauer Rose, LLP" on Justia Law

by
Respondent, magistrate judge of Greenwood County Walter Martin, and the South Carolina Office of Disciplinary Counsel (ODC) entered into an Agreement for Discipline by Consent (Agreement) pursuant to Rule 21 of the Rules for Judicial Disciplinary Enforcement (RJDE) contained in Rule 502 of the South Carolina Appellate Court Rules (SCACR). In the Agreement, Respondent admitted misconduct, consented to any sanction ranging from a confidential admonition up to a six-month definite suspension, and agreed to attend anger management counseling and pay costs. This discipline stemmed from two incidents in 2021 in which Respondent used profanity toward plaintiff's counsel at a jury trial, and for complaining "in a loud and agitated manner" toward a scheduling clerk for failing to provide him timely notice of a jury trial. The South Carolina Supreme Court accepted the Agreement and issued a public reprimand. View "In the Matter of Walter Rutledge Martin of the Greenwood County Magistrate's Court" on Justia Law

by
On July 25, 2021, Mark Thompson, Judge for the 5th Colorado Judicial District, got into a heated verbal confrontation with his 22-year-old adult stepson. The confrontation began in the street in front of Judge Thompson’s home and continued inside the home. After the confrontation moved inside the home, Judge Thompson was alleged to have pointed an AR-15 style rifle at his stepson’s chest. Judge Thompson retrieved the rifle from a gun safe in the home before allegedly pointing it at his stepson. The stepson left the house and called 911. The Sherriff’s Department began an investigation. Once the Summit County Sheriff’s Department recognized that Judge Thompson was the Chief Judge for their judicial district, it recused itself and transferred the case to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. In early January 2022, Judge Thompson pled guilty to a class 2 misdemeanor for disorderly conduct, for which he was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation with a requirement of continued anger management. The Colorado Commission on Judicial Discipline (“the Commission”) recommended that the Colorado Supreme Court approve a Stipulation for Public Censure and Suspension, which was executed between Judge Thompson and the Commission pursuant to Rules 36(c), 36(e), and 37(e) of the Colorado Rules of Judicial Discipline (“RJD”). Consistent with the Stipulation, the Commission recommended that the Supreme Court issue a public censure and a thirty-day suspension of Judge Thompson's judicial duties without pay. The Supreme Court adopted the Commission’s recommendation. View "Matter of: Judge Mark D. Thompson" on Justia Law

by
At issue before the Georgia Supreme Court in this case was an agreement between the Director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission (“JQC”) and the City of Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Grundy. The agreement would resolve formal charges against Judge Gundy, alleging excessive tardiness and absenteeism, with a suspension of 30 to 90 days and a public reprimand, pursuant to Rule 23 of the JQC’s Rules. The Supreme Court accepted the agreement and ordered Judge Gundy be suspended without pay for 90 days and publicly reprimanded. View "Inquiry concerning Judge Terrinee Gundy" on Justia Law